Rosemary talks to Random House about Saul
Q: SAUL is based on the true story of your son’s premature birth at 23 weeks and the four months he spent in a neonatal care unit. Why did you decide to write about the experience and why did you choose to tell the story from Saul’s point of view?
A: I was so shocked by the world of neonatal intensive care, which was largely unknown at the time, I thought other people would want to know about it. People often sympathised with us as parents, but it’s the babies who do most of the fighting. That’s why I wanted to write it from Saul’s perspective, to give him a voice, because he couldn’t speak for himself. They’re still human beings, these tiny little things, and like the rest of us, they still feel pain, fear, loneliness. I wanted to get closer to Saul and understand his experience of life, to work out how he withstood the trauma, and how he approached death. We made a detailed and accurate diary of his medical progress and this was my starting point. But as I got further into the project, I realized I wanted to explore all the issues of life and death surrounding the subject and it became a far more spiritual work.
Q: Can you explain what you mean by the ” world” of the neonatal intensive care? What are your perceptions of the neonatal unit where Saul lived for several months?
A: I was fairly well read before I had Saul; I thought I knew about hospitals and about things that could go wrong. But I was completely unprepared for the world into which we were thrown. When you first visit a large Neonatal I.C.Unit, there’s just too much to take in. It’s all too noisy and bright and shocking. It’s only when you’ve been there for a few weeks that you can begin to interpret what’s going on, and all the implications of what you’re witnessing. It’s very far removed from what you’d wish your newborn to experience: it’s hard, impersonal, shiny white, milling with people, unimaginably noisy. Of course, a lot has changed in the years since I wrote this account, and a more pleasant environment is now considered important, but you can’t escape the fact that babies as critically ill as Saul need intensive treatment which isn’t always compatible with nice surroundings.
We tried to explain what it was like to others but found it impossible to portray even a fraction of the experience. We felt no one would ever understand. You can tell people about the broad events but it’s only when you go into detail that anyone can begin to grasp the situation.
Q: After you finished the book, the seemingly impossible happened. Can you tell us about it?
A: Soon after finishing Saul, I became pregnant again, having vowed never to risk putting another child through Saul’s experience. Although the chances of a repetition should have been small, I ended up back in the same unit, with another baby fighting for her life.
Q: How was this experience different from your first?
A: The second time around was very different. It was the same hospital and some of the same staff, but this time the unit wasn’t so busy, and my baby wasn’t so desperately ill (She was born at 26 weeks). Everyone was immensely kind and supportive and they all desperately wanted it to work out. So the whole unit was overjoyed when she was well enough to go home. Re-living the nightmare for a second time – but with a different outcome – has had a profound effect on me. It has banished a lot of ghosts and made me realize just how lucky I am, both to have my daughter now and to have had Saul then.
Q: Having been through two very different experiences of neonatal care, what advice do you have for other parents who are going through the same experience now?
A: My heart goes out to them. If they manage to get through each day at all, it’s an achievement. They must pat themselves on the back every day, just for doing that. There’s no one way to cope. I didn’t cope very well the second time; I became the Parent From Hell. But the way you respond is the right way for you. Every situation is different, every baby is different, every unit is different. With Saul, we got through by believing that it would all be worth it in the end and we always looked forward to a happier future. With my daughter, my capacity for optimism had been damaged, so I never looked into the future, I just lived in the moment, trying to enjoy every second with her, because I knew how I would cherish those memories if it went wrong again.
Q: After Saul, you got involved with a charity that does research into premature birth/problem pregnancies. What were your goals with this group?
A: I couldn’t bear to think of all those babies and parents suffering, I just had to do something to make a difference to other families. Trying to prevent the tragedies from occurring in the first place seems to be the best way forward. The number of premature births hasn’t changed a great deal in the last fifty years and there is so much more to discover about why pregnancies fail. There’s some really exciting research going on at the moment and Tommy’s is a major part of that.
Q: You obviously learned many things from your experience with Saul. What would you say is the most profound lesson you learned from his life? What would you like readers to gain from reading about Saul?
A: I’m really proud of Saul. His story is partly about the triumph of the human spirit, a spirit that must have been very strong, but was hidden in a body no bigger than your hand. So, perhaps I just want the reader to be allowed to know Saul as we did.
As for profound lessons: well, he taught me so much; I’m a very different person now. One of the hardest things about the death of a child, is coming to terms with the senselessness of it all – trying to find a reason that could justify such cruelty. But, I was lucky, because I was given the privilege to watch Saul prepare for death and it was a humbling and enlightening experience. Although I can’t explain it now, it was as if he was showing me a glimpse of something profound, something normally inexplicable. For a split second I became absolutely sure that everything, about life and death, did make sense, but as human beings we’re not equipped to understand. Of course just like those dreams where you are sure you have worked it all out, it dissipates as soon as you wake up. But I’ve tried to write the book so that anyone, no matter what their beliefs about life and death, can find something enlightening in Saul’s story. No one can say for certain what has happened to Saul, and everyone can bring their own beliefs to the book; but for me it’s a heart-rending, but awe-inspiring (some might say, awful) mystery. I suppose many writers before me, and philosophers, and religious thinkers, have sought to unravel that mystery and this book is part (a small, very humble part!) of that endeavour. It’s about trying to grasp the intangible, imagine the unimaginable, touch the untouchable.
I suppose, ultimately, I’d like the reader to appreciate what most people who knew Saul have felt: that his life, that all life, is precious, and that his passing through was important.
“One life – a little gleam of time between two eternities.” Thomas Carlyle.